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Massachusetts voters petition for redress, but House keeps power of purse

By The Associated Press

08.02.02

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BOSTON — More than 200 years after citizens dumped tea in the harbor and took up arms in defense of liberty, the cry of tyranny is being raised again in Boston — this time against the people's elected representatives.

The state Legislature devoted much of the session that ended this week to trying to quash citizen initiatives, prompting newspapers to caricature the House speaker as an autocrat with a scepter and crown.

Lawmakers in the cradle of democracy ignored voter mandates to roll back the income tax, balked at funding a Clean Elections law, and refused to vote on whether to put a measure banning gay marriage on the 2004 ballot, even though supporters had collected 130,000 voter signatures.

Massachusetts voters can pass ballot initiatives, but only the Legislature can put up the money needed to carry them out.

To many, voter initiatives are a foolish way to make laws, and some legislators consider it their duty to serve as a check on the passions of the people.

"While we have a responsibility to the voters who voted for the referenda, we also have a responsibility to the voters who want a good education system and good roads and want government to run," said state Rep. Dan Bosley, a Democrat from North Adams. "Do we do the popular thing, or do we do what we think is right based on the knowledge that we have, which may indeed be a little more sophisticated than what the general public has?"

This year, more than any other in recent memory, legislators trusted their own judgment, saying a $600 million revenue shortfall made voter-approved initiatives like tax cuts impossible. The budget passed by lawmakers could cut health insurance for 50,000 unemployed and homeless people.

But critics say the Legislature went overboard, taking advantage of a weak governor and undermining a citizen-initiative process adopted in 1918 to check the power of a Legislature once dominated by a tight circle of Yankee elites.

"They've become so much out of touch with real people, and they despise us so much and the process that lets us interfere," said Barbara Anderson, whose group Citizens for Limited Taxation campaigned for a ballot measure to roll back the income tax in stages from 5.95% to 5%.

Voters approved the measure in 2000, but the Legislature essentially refused to put the final cut into effect this year and froze the rate at 5.3%.

The most controversial standoff came over the Clean Elections law, passed by voters in 1998, that makes taxpayer money available to candidates who agree to limits on their spending and fund raising. The Legislature refused to release the necessary money.

Lawmakers claimed that the law diverted money from worthier causes and that taxpayers should not have to help candidates they do not like. Clean-election supporters countered by saying incumbents are just afraid of competition.

The dispute provoked a constitutional crisis — and much ridicule — when the state's highest court ordered Statehouse office furniture, vehicles and land auctioned off to pay for the law. The Legislature eventually agreed to fund it for a year.

Then the Legislature refused to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot.

Few thought the measure would pass. But "whether one agrees with these propositions or not, if people go out and get the signatures, it seems to me they ought to be entitled to a vote," said former Gov. Michael Dukakis, now a politics professor at Northeastern University.

Dukakis recalled a different era, when legislators actually trimmed their own ranks at the voters' behest, cutting the Legislature from 240 members to 160 in 1979.

"That was not an easy vote, if you're looking at one's colleagues and one-third of them aren't going to be there," he said.

Such a thing seems unimaginable today. There are various theories about what has changed.

There are now veto-proof Democratic majorities in both houses, opposed only by Republican acting Gov. Jane Swift. The state is in a budget crisis. And there is also House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who led the charge to derail Clean Elections. He has been drawn on editorial pages as a monarch and has been accused by some of ruling the House with an iron fist.

The Boston Democrat did not return calls seeking comment.

Massachusetts is one of the few Eastern states to have ballot initiatives; the others are mostly out West.

Pamela Wilmot, acting director of the group Common Cause, acknowledged voter initiatives do not always produce good laws. But she said: "It's their government, their right to make mistakes."

Update

Massachusetts voters advise axing Clean Elections law
Campaign-finance reform supporters cry foul, saying nonbinding ballot question's wording was skewed.  11.06.02

Related

Taking the 'citizen' out of citizen initiatives
Analysis In some states, activists say special interests, millionaires are hijacking the process; in other states, legislators are erecting ever-higher hurdles for signature-gatherers.  10.15.02

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